The discussions included ovary transplantation, the checking of post-menstrual
“spotting” by color-blind rabbis to determine if a woman can go to the ritual
bath, breastfeeding, pain during intercourse, post-natal depression,
precancerous cervical lesions and abortions. But there were no female speakers
at the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine According to Halacha’s
12th-annual “Innovations in Gynecology, Obstetrics and Jewish Law”conference
Wednesday in Jerusalem – there were only 13 rabbis and eight male physicians or
PhDs on the podium during the daylong gathering.
Despite the brouhaha
raised during the past week in the general media over its “exclusion of women,”
and the counterattacks by the haredi world, there were no secular or haredi
journalists. But I (who am neither) was there to listen and cover the sessions,
as I have been for the past decade.
The discussions, as always, included
terminology such as ejaculation and male orgasm, as well as other subjects that
would have caused haredi men to blush even without the presence of women, and
which are routinely censored in the haredi media. And as with the previous
conferences, there was an equal number of women and men (more than 1,000 in all)
– separated by cloth-covered dividers – in attendance, and closed-circuit TV
screens showing the speakers.
Although nothing had really changed, the
audience had more haredim in black kippot, and fewer national religious men in
crocheted kippot. And there was tension in the air – resulting from Kadima MK
(and gynecologist) Rachel Adatto’s objection last week to Puah’s policy of not
allowing women experts to address the crowd.
In light of growing
extremism in the haredi community, exemplified by incidents in Beit Shemesh,
conflicts over gender-segregated buses and the growing “exclusion of women,” the
Israel Medical Association (IMA) issued a position paper this week. The
statement barred its members from discriminating against women – in the
provision of medical treatment, in medical publications, in hiring and in
appearing at medical conferences.
Almost all the physician speakers
cancelled their planned lectures, forcing Puah – established by
national-religious Jews – to scramble to find male speakers will to replace
those who feared trouble from the IMA or agreed with its stance.
revised list of subjects was handed out three hours after the conference began,
and even then without the names of the new speakers, so as to prevent trouble
There was tension in the air that one could touch. Guards at
the men’s and women’s entrances were alert for secular demonstrators – who never
showed up. But the advance negative publicity was on everyone’s mind as the
chairs very slowly filled up. Was it due to parking problems, the weather, or
last-minute cancellation by “liberals,” the Puah organizers
Before it opened, women spoke among themselves.
should have invited leading women doctors to speak,” argued one
“They could have turned off the closed-circuit TV on the men’s
side and just heard them. Maybe 22 years ago it was correct for [the late former
Sephardi chief] Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to insist that no women speakers be
invited so that any rabbi or man felt comfortable. But that doesn’t mean it is
mandatory today, when there are many female doctors and scientists who are more
expert than men.”
An adamant haredi women countered by saying that “the
rabbis say it is forbidden for men to hear women speak. A woman’s voice is
She was referring to what is usually understood as a woman’s
singing voice, but disagreed.
“It is not only singing. It is
speaking by a woman who is not your wife.”
The women’s side was a sea of
almost total black and grey.
Haredi woman and even schoolgirls have in
recent years abandoned colorful dresses and coats (even housecoats), and shops
in haredi neighborhoods illustrate the darkening female wardrobe. A way of
making women less noticeable?
“We usually have butterflies in our stomachs,”
said one Puah organizer, who was the first speaker. “Will the computer equipment
and the lights work and the lecturers come as scheduled? This time we have an
elephant here. We pray that this 12th conference will be professional, efficient
and, we hope, interesting.”
Puah founder and director Rabbi Menachem
Burstein declared: “There was media noise. Today, we are not preoccupied with
provocations. We thank the many people who called to give us support and
affection – even from abroad. Every day of the year, except for our
national conference, women can speak at our various events, but not at this
Burstein added his thanks to Sari Ben-Lulu, the organization’s
spokeswoman, for working overtime to defend Puah in the chaotic last days before
“Yes, we even have a spokeswoman,” he said. “There were
organizational threats, even of boycotts, against doctors who were originally on
our list to speak. We will not take revenge on them.”
Ramat Gan’s chief
rabbi, Ya’acov Ariel, who discussed the complicated issue of possible ovary
transplants to help other women get pregnant, discussed the week’s Torah portion
in which Israelite midwives Puah and Shifra delivered infant boys in ancient
Egypt, despite Pharoah’s order to kill them.
“You see? There was
exclusion of males then,” Ariel said with a smile.
discussion comparing grafting citrons onto lemon tree branches and using various
examples of animal husbandry to rule on the matter of human ovaries was not easy
Single women who do not find a husband when young should,
Ariel recommended, have their ovaries removed and frozen so they can use them
even in old age to produce a pregnancy – instead of getting an anonymous sperm
donation, possibly from a non-Jew, to have a baby.
“She should freeze the
eggs and she will be blessed and get married,” he said.
Many of the
pinch-hitting physicians who showed up were from Ma’ayanei Hayeshua Hospital in
Bnei Brak and Jerusalem’s Bikur Cholim Hospital, both of them
They did not say whether they had been pressured into
appearing at the last moment.
Puah would not compromise on women speakers
at the annual event, but it decided to sponsor an annual women’s conference on
the anniversary of the death of Eliyahu at which female doctors would be invited
Tel Aviv chief rabbi (and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi) Yisrael
Meir Lau said that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews suffered from fertility
problems, and that Puah had made it possible for tens of thousands of babies to
be born to them, thanks to medical technologies approved by rabbis.
phoned a modern-Orthodox woman pediatrician who was not there and who declined
to have her name mentioned.
“I have refused to attend Puah’s events for
the past seven years as a matter of principle,” she said. “I am one of two women
doctors in the country who are also lactation consultants. A discussion
on breastfeeding was scheduled but I was not allowed to speak, even though men
don’t know very much about breastfeeding.”
She added that the exclusion
of female experts there was not a new phenomenon.
“I was asked back then
by a Puah rabbi to brief him on the subject, and he presented my information at
the conference,” she told me. “I was also upset that this part of the conference
was sponsored by a baby-formula company.”
The pediatrician thought the
IMA was “shooting from the hip” by deciding within a day to issue a position
paper on the matter, but “the problem of growing haredi extremism and the
exclusion of women doctors has to be dealt with.”